Was James Dean Gay? 'Joshua Tree, 1951' Takes an Unblinking Look at Legendary Actor

Director Matthew Mishory
Director Matthew Mishory

On Thursday, Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean, a stylized, intriguing film about James Dean before he becomes a major movie star, premieres at the Seattle International Film Festival. Los Angeles-based and openly gay director Matthew Mishory, who examines Dean's gay leanings, talked with us about his feature debut.

L.A. Weekly: What was your driving goal or mission for this film?

Mishory: Not to make a biopic or a biography but rather a portrait. A moment in -- or, maybe, outside of -- time. We started with the histories, messy as they might be, and set about arriving at a truth. In doing so, we used every tool in the portraitist's kit. And, of course, we dealt with a period in Jimmy's life that has rarely if ever been dramatized -- and never in this way.

Weekly: Why is it that James Dean, even when Elizabeth Taylor said he was gay, has never been called gay? He's always mentioned as "possibly" being "bisexual" by the mainstream press, if his sexual orientation is mentioned at all.

Mishory: I sometimes suspect the mainstream press still believes queer people were invented in the 1970s, and that before that, everybody was straight and chaste. Well, officially, they might have been -- and studio publicists were tasked with maintaining the facade -- but we know better. Elizabeth Taylor was far from the only person to publicly acknowledge that James Dean was not heterosexual. What is essentially common knowledge can hardly be called controversial. There is no hand-wringing about sex in this movie -- and no gay angst.

Weekly: Why do people still have a fascination with James Dean after all these years? And don't say because he died young and pretty.

Mishory: He continues to fascinate because he was an awkward, un-fancied farm boy from Indiana who, like so many young people, truly wanted to contribute something to the world. And after a real struggle, he did. He fundamentally changed the way actors act -- and probably also the way Hollywood portrays young people. But it came at a cost. There were real consequences to his ambition. I think that anybody who has ever felt like an outsider or dreamed of something more can relate to his story.

Weekly: James Dean was a very tortured guy from everything I've read. Do you think his true sexual orientation played a role in that?

Mishory: I think Jimmy's vulnerability and, indeed, his melancholy flowed from the tragedy of his mother's early death, the disappointment of an unloving -- or, at least, unaffectionate -- father, and the depressing reality he faced in trying to make a name for himself in Hollywood. He wasn't "connected." He didn't have a trust fund. And he was developing a style of acting far from the accepted norm. He faced immeasurable odds.

As for sex, I think attitudes in the 1950s within Hollywood were far more libertine than today's conservative mainstream culture. Of course, everything happened in private behind closed doors. But everything -- and anything -- did happen.

Weekly: What are you hoping that the audience will get from this film?

Mishory: A new and very unique perspective on the material and the era. Numerous films have dramatized the life of James Dean, but I don't think any of them look, feel or sound quite like ours. My producers, Edward Singletary Jr., Randall Walk and Robert Zimmer Jr. have by now a familiar refrain: "This is not the movie people think it is."

Weekly: This is a long question, but what's the state of queer cinema? What and who are the good things about it? How can it improve? I'm always thinking queer cinema needs to get beyond sex or falling in love for the first time and start addressing real issues and/or universal themes in which the lead character just happens to be gay.

Mishory: Your last point is well-taken. In fact, I think it neatly summarizes our film. The characters are who they are. You will not hear the words "gay" or "bisexual" uttered once in Joshua Tree, 1951. We're too busy painting a portrait of a fascinating young man named James Dean who captivated -- and continues to captivate -- audiences the world over.

Contact Patrick Range McDonald at pmcdonald@laweekly.com.

Follow McDonald on Facebook and Twitter.

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